NASA's Juno spacecraft is slated to start slinking into line with Jupiter's orbit on Monday, marking the end of a five-year journey to reach the gas giant and the beginning of about a year of Juno conducting scientific experiments and sending back fresh up-close images of the planet.
Meanwhile, it almost seems like Jupiter is as psyched as NASA scientists and space geeks of all kinds are about Juno's scheduled arrival. The planet has some of the most stunning auroras in the solar system, massive super-charged fields of energy that produces enormous spans of light and color from the magnetic poles.
Auroras are created when charged particles in the space surrounding the planet are accelerated to high energies along the planet's magnetic field. When the particles hit the atmosphere near the magnetic poles, they cause it to glow like gases in a fluorescent light fixture. Jupiter's magnetosphere is 20,000 times stronger than Earth's and the Jovian auroras are about the size of Earth.
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These lights are always putting on an impressive show, but lately astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to study Jupiter's auroras have noticed the auroras have been particularly brilliant.
The images of Jupiter's light show were captured during the Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph far-ultraviolet-light observations taking place as NASA's Juno spacecraft approaches and enters into orbit around Jupiter last week. The aim of the program is to determine how Jupiter's auroras respond to changing conditions in the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emitted from the sun.
“These auroras are very dramatic and among the most active I have ever seen,” Jonathan Nichols, an astronomer at the University of Leicester, stated in a release. “It almost seems as if Jupiter is throwing a firework party for the imminent arrival of Juno.”